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The pursuit of a safer climate in Yejide Kilanko’s Chasing Butterflies

“Mummy, fight for who? Fight for what? A good mother is no use to her children when she is dead.”

Chasing Butterflies is such a warm and promising title but that is where all the warmth ends because this is such a chilling read! At this point it is important that I issue a Trigger Warning for gender based violence because it is the central theme of the book. This was my first time reading a novel by Yejide Kilanko and it was a rewarding experience. I will be honest and say that the violent scenes in the book were nerve racking for me and I had to pace myself because Kilanko’s style of writing is vivid. Surprisingly, this was also a short read and filled with so many highlights. If I had it my way, the antagonist would have never seen another day beyond Chapter Eighteen.

This is a story about Titilope and Tomide Ojo, Nigerian immigrants living in the USA. They are a young working couple (Titilope is an accountant and Tomide works for the Federal Government) with two children , T.J and Jordan (Tomide’s child with his American former wife Holly). The story traces Tomide’s abusive nature and it’s effects around those around him. The book does not give any signs of hope for Tilitope until the very end when she and her son see butterflies at the beach, thousands of orange Monarch butterflies which they joyously chase. She asks the lady next to her of their destination and she receives an illuminating answer, “‘Mexico. It’s their annual winter migration. They get to cross borders without visas and passports.’ Titilope turned to face her. ‘Isn’t it amazing how they know when it’s time to leave for a safer climate?’” This mirrors her life and gives her a signal that it is time to move to a safer climate after Tomide nearly kills her.

The systems in place do not make it any easier to leave/seek justice and the book highlights this. One major contributor is family, some families still hold onto the beliefs that the beginning and the end of a woman’s life is rooted in marriage. Titilope’s mother is the classical example, she calls from Nigeria begging her to forgive him because…he is a man doing what men do. Titilope rises above this and stands her ground, ‘My mother told me a woman’s accomplishments mean nothing if she couldn’t keep her home. I was close to being dead and wrong.’ The shaming that comes with letting go of marriage is too great a burden to bear for some and a cause for reluctance by some women in abusive relationships. There are some friends (imagine in this case you are in the USA so the few Nigerians that you meet there, essentially become your family) that protect abusers. James who is both their friend and Bunmi’s husband, begs Titilope to forgive Tomide making up all sort of excuses for him. In some cases the law and its enforcers are not always on the side of victims. But not all parts of community enable abuse. Bunmi is a good friend to Titilope in more ways than one (she checks on her and takes care of TJ while her friend recuperates), Titilope also finds support from Sunbeam and the women’s academy centre. Not only does Titilope find support, once she is strong she volunteers at the centre to teach about financial support. Further highlighting another form of abuse, financial abuse and how some women are reluctant to leave due to financial reasons. Unequal power relations are brought out in this book in different ways. Titilope volunteering to give financial advise is a lesson to each of us in the fight against gender based violence, that we can fight/help victims with what we have, whatever it is, it can save someone’s life/contribute to the fight. Community is made up of each of us, change can be a reality if everyone does what they can.

The effects of gender based violence are tragic, the statistics are a cause of concern and when writers capture these issues ‘of the day’ it is commendable. Kilanko does it in twenty five chapters without mincing her words. Titilope’s voluntary work at the end reminds me of Audre Lorde’s words in her 1982 essay, ‘Learning from the 60s’about how we should all find our place in a struggle. “Each of us must find our work and do it.” These are words to consider as we fight daily against gender based violence. It is true that most of the work has to be done by the perpetrators who have to stop the violence against women. I don’t know if I enjoyed this book but I value its message and it had me thinking a lot around the issue of transformative action within the fight against gender based violence. It also has some questions at the end which can be useful for book club discussions.


Book Details

Title: Chasing Butterflies

Author: Yejide Kilanko

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 172 (Kindle version)

Publisher: Oyoka Books (Feb 2018)

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